Interview with Jackie Kay
Jackie Kay is a poet and fiction writer who grew up in Glasgow, Scotland and now lives in Manchester, U.K. Her first book of poetry was The Adoption Papers (1991), which won the Saltire and Forward prizes. She has written two other poetry collections for adults, Other Lovers (1993) and Off Colour (1998), as well as numerous collections for children. Her fiction includes Trumpet (1998), which won the Author’s Club first novel award and the 1988 Guardian Fiction award, and a recent book of short stories, Why Don’t You Stop Talking (2002). This interview is based on three conversations with Kay that took place in Manchester and in Raleigh, N.C from September 2001 to February 2002.
FV: What poetic traditions do you see yourself a part of? You write in your recent novel, Trumpet, about making, at least partially, your own ancestry; who are your ancestors?
Kay: I see myself as coming out of two, quite distinct traditions. On the one hand, there’s the tradition of Scottish poetry itself–you know, Burns, Burns Suppers, and that kind of a tradition in Scotland, where you would get to hear poetry being read and performed out loud. At events like that, you actually have, for instance, an address to the Haggis, where somebody recites a poem to the Haggis, or an address to the lassies. I used to go to those a lot as a child, Burns Suppers, every single year, sometimes three different Burns Suppers a year. They made a huge impression on me. I loved that poetry could be performed, that poetry could be dramatic. I really do see myself as being part of a tradition that wants to see the drama that is in poetry, through its poetic voices. So that is one kind of tradition. On the other hand, I also am very interested, and always have been, in music. I see that my poetry is influenced by jazz and blues, as well as by Celtic folk songs and music. Lots of the rhythms and the repetitions that are in my poetry are closely related to music and come out of musical tradition. So, it’s two, quite distinct, but, to me, connected traditions.
FV: Can you say more about how jazz and blues have influenced your poetry?
Kay: Without the jazz and blues traditions, my poetry basically wouldn’t be the same. It’s consciously and also unconsciously influenced by jazz and blues– how much is conscious and how much is unconscious I don’t actually know, because one never knows these things. It’s not an exact science. I did listen to jazz and blues a lot when I was growing up and I loved it instinctively–loved it as if it was already part of me, as if it already belonged to me. It already seemed my music even as a small child of ten or eleven when everybody else was listening to Donny Osmond and David Cassidy or The Bay City Rollers. Then I was listening to Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Count Basie, and Billie Holiday–these are the people that I really love. Charlie Parker. I love that business of sitting and counting the beats, listening to the beats and tapping my foot like my dad. I was very fortunate that I had a dad who loved jazz and blues. He played it a lot when he was home. It was also fortunate that I had a best friend who loved jazz and blues. We used to mimic Pearl Bailey. We had this album of Pearl Bailey and she’d sing “Tired of the life I lead, tired of the Blues I be.” So we’d do these songs. We’d put the record on and then one of us would get up and pretend to be Bailey. We spent hours doing that and it was really fantastic. I think that a lot of that actual meter, the 12/4 bar beat of the blues, and then the looser jazz forms, in the later jazz songs, went into my writing. Some of my poems have got that quite strict 12/4 blues kind of a meter. Others have got the other sort of jazz flow. It kind of provides fuel, allows me to really take off on certain riffs. I definitely think that one can trace the music in my work. So yes, I definitely think it’s a great influence.
FV: Do you ever have specific songs in mind when you write your poems, like Stevie Smith did, for instance?
Kay: No, I never do that because I quite like the reader to have freedom. That would be too much directing my reader. I like my readers to come with what they know, so say, for instance, that some of my readers might not like jazz or have never listened to it. Then, they will find it very fresh and different. But the readers who do like jazz and do listen to it will be able to see that there is a musical influence. It’s there if you’re interested. But I wouldn’t like to direct someone too much by telling them a specific song or a specific piece of music to listen to. Then all that they’d be doing is weighing those two things against each other. There wouldn’t be enough room for them, for their own response. I’m really interested in my readers’ responses. I make a lot of room for my readers. When I write, I actually think about it consciously, about creating a space so that the reader can come in with their life, their experiences, their disappointments, and their loves. I want it to be like the call and response of the blues. So, I’m happiest if a reader comes up to me and says, “Oh that bit meant so much to me because that was exactly like such and such that happened in my life.” That makes me happier than anything else as a writer. You as writer call and the reader responds.
FV: What contemporary poets form your poetic community? That is, which poets do you identify with, even if you don’t personally know them?
Kay: Well, I identify with Liz Lochhead. She was one of the first poets that I ever heard. I think that certain people are flame carriers for a whole lot of people to come after them. I would say that without Liz Lochhead I wouldn’t exist. Lochhead was one of the first women poets that made it possible to speak in her own voice, which was a Scottish voice. That was very different, very original, when she first started writing. I went to hear her when I was a school girl, sixteen years old. It was the same with Tom Leonard, another Scottish poet, who has been around for a long time. I got very excited when I first heard both of them. Then, there is an American group of poets that really influenced me, Audre Lorde being one of them, as well as Nikki Giovanni and Ntozake Shange. When I first heard and read all of their work, I felt very excited. They were able to explore being a woman and being what a woman meant, in Audre Lorde’s case being a black lesbian and a poet. At that time, I didn’t know anybody existed that was like me at all. They were able to do that through their poetry. I suppose I didn’t see anyone who was a reflection of me because there weren’t very many black poets writing then in this country. I got the Scottishness from the Scottish poets and the blackness from the American poets, largely. As a result, I have never felt myself to be part of one distinct tradition because, I suppose, my identity is quite complex. I get what I can from where I can get it. I don’t feel that I have a single hero therefore, in the way that some poets do.
FV: Yes, as an American, your poetry has always seemed familiar, perhaps because of the influences of those African-American women writers.
Kay: Well, that’s definitely true, and, at one stage, these writers influenced me much more than the Scottish poets. You go through various trying on of clothes as far as identity is concerned, rejecting some things about yourself and accepting others. So, at one stage, I felt annoyed with being Scottish and rejected everything to do with being Scottish. I just wanted to embrace being black because for so many years I hadn’t done that. So, at one stage, that was who I was reading, African-American writers, everybody from poets to novelists–Gayle Jones, Gloria Naylor, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison. These writers influenced me a lot. I didn’t want to write like them, that’s another thing that’s important when you think about influence. Influence doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to try and create a similar thing; it just means that you broaden your perspective and see what’s possible.
FV: One of the things I’ve been struggling with as a critic of British poetry is the national marker issue. It seems inevitable that you have to use something, and so, I wanted to ask you whether you consider yourself a Scottish poet, a British poet, both? Do you want to avoid all those labels?
Kay: I suppose I consider myself a Scottish writer, in the sense that I am, and I consider myself a black writer, in the sense that I am, and a woman writer, in the sense that I am. All these I am and I wouldn’t deny being. I am wary of labels, though, because they tend to give people certain expectations and then people will assume that the themes in your work–or your interests–are actually of another spectrum than they are. So, they can actually blinker people’s way of reading your work. I prefer as much wide open space around my works, and around the reading of it, as possible. That’s quite important to me. I mean, it’s partly to do with how our world works, which is unfortunate. It’s unfortunate that, for instance, whiteness isn’t categorized. So you never have a statement that “this is a white writer,” but you do have a statement that “this is a black writer”–and the same with sexuality. You never have a statement “that this is a heterosexual writer,” yet you do have with gay writers. So, it’s partly because everybody who is different is automatically categorized and then, once you’ve got all the lists, the long lists of categories after your name, you then, in a peculiar way, prejudice the way that people read your work, because we live in a prejudiced society. So that’s why I’m wary of labels. It’s not out of any personal hesitancy. I’m a very openly gay person. I live an open life, but it bothers me the way that different people’s work gets different kinds of status and attention, and different readings.
FV: I’m particularly interested in the British label; does that bother you?
Kay: I wouldn’t ever describe myself as British. I have trouble with describing myself as British.
FV: Well, maybe you can help me with something. One of my goals as a critic has been to create a more inclusive canon of British poetry, as has been done with American poetry. Do you mind being considered a British writer if the point is to bring those who have formerly been marginalized–blacks, women, Scots, lesbians–to the center?
Kay: In that sense, British poetry, twentieth-century British poetry, that’s fine. I mean I would easily fit under an umbrella or a category of British, but if someone said to me–if you were filling out a form and somebody said, what do you fill in on the form–I would put “Scottish.” It’s just a personal choice, but, of course, we are all Scottish people first, under the umbrella of being British. It’s just that there are a billion inherent problems in that, but you can’t edit an anthology and call it “Scottish, English, Irish and Welsh.” What you would object to, as a Scottish poet, is being put in an anthology of English literature. Some use English as the heading for Scottish poets and that’s very peculiar.
FV: In addition to the whole question of traditions, I’m particularly interested in your non-elitist approach to poetry that often manifests itself in the crossing of poetry with what might be considered more accessible mediums. For instance, you made two television productions of your poetry, the 1992 Twice through the Heart with BBC Bristol and the 1995 Sabbath with BBC Wales. What are the attractions and limitations of television for a poet?
Kay: Well, I basically think it’s been great in the last thirty or so years that poetry has really broken out of some of its enclosures and is out there, you know, on the underground. There’s poems on the news now, sometimes the commission of poets to write a poem about the news. Poetry has this amazing ability, partly because if its succinctness, and partly because of its memorability, to be able to make a big impact on people, which is the reason why people use poetry at times of great distress in their lives, when they’re grieving, or at times of extreme happiness, when they’re in love. At those times, people often turn to poets to express things for them. In our particular time, we’ve seen the widening of that, and I think the broader that spectrum, the better. I think really it’s time for poetry to move outside of its slim volumes, read mostly by other poets, and into a wider world. I think that’s reflected in lots of different ways by the poets that are trying to write themed or linked books of poetry that connect narratives and by lots of poets breaking out and writing in different forums. There’ve been long poetic narratives. There’ve been poetry plays. There’ve been poetry documentaries on television and so all of these are ways forward, really. I think the danger is that poetry is not stand-up comedy, and it’s not necessarily understandable on first hearing, nor would you want it to be. So, getting people excited about language and the rhythms of language and the way that language works is a good thing, but sort of dumbing it down isn’t. So, that’s the only kind of danger, I suppose.
FV: To what extent does poetry have a responsibility to be accessible?
Kay: Well, I think different poets would answer this completely differently. For myself, I like poetry to be accessible. I don’t like self- indulgent poetry that is full of so many private references and private language that a reader can’t find the way in. It’s very important to me that readers do find the way into my poetry. I want my readers to have the key so that they can open door, be in the house of poetry, and find their way around in that house. If they can never open the door, if the door’s closed to them, then they can never even get in and find their way around the house, look out the window, pick up the lid and see what’s cooking on the stove. So I really do like a reader to be able to enter; it’s very important to me that poetry is accessible. It doesn’t mean that a poem has to have only one meaning. It can have multiple meanings and there can be many ways of interpreting it. But the reader has got to be able find one of these. It’s like one of these funny modern computer games that the kids play. They get into one level and then they’ve got to try to find another level and another level. A poem is a bit like that, or it should be like that, in that the first level of the poem should be easily accessible. Then once they’re inside, they can hopefully find other ways of interpreting or reading the poem. There’s always going to be at least four or five different ways that you intend a poem to be read. I never think, “This is the one way that this poem can be read.” A poem like “Pride,” for example, can be read in many different ways. The black man on the train can be somebody who seems threatening or it could be somebody that seems like family or it can be somebody who seems welcoming. Or, he can be a made up person because at the end of the poem he disappears, and you’re not sure whether he’s ever actually been on the train. So, there’s lots of different ways of interpreting that and of interpreting how she sees him and whether she’s criticizing Nigeria or whether she’s not. Every poem, even a poem that appears quite simple, should have lots of different ways of looking at it. But I do think that poems need to be accessible. I don’t particularly like poems where I can’t work out what’s going on.
FV: That’s why your poems work so well in the classroom-because they are accessible. Kay: That’s good. For too long people have been frightened of poetry and poetry has seemed as if it’s the most inaccessible and the most highly literary of the written art forms. The novel seems to be a much more metropolitan, democratic, and easily accessible place to be. I think that’s a shame. But it is changing a bit. There are quite a few poets who write poems that are both accessible and complex. For example, Sharon Olds here in the States does that and Billy Collins does that. In our country, Carol Ann Duffy does it. So there are quite a few poets that are writing work now that’s instantly accessible but also complex. But there are also an awful lot of poets who are not.
FV: Next, could you shed light on how you compose poetry? Has writing fiction affected your process of composition?
Kay: For the moment, writing fiction has killed off the poetry. Poetry’s like a rejected lover who is standing at the bottom of garden. Right now, her back is turned toward me and occasionally she might turn around and walk a few steps towards me. I can just make her out and then off she goes again. I do think that in writing prose you use a different part of your brain. It’s almost like a left hand, right hand kind of thing. At the moment, I’m using the prose side of my brain, so it makes it very difficult to actually write poetry. I’m sure that it will come back and that when it does comes back that my poetry will have changed dramatically from having written this prose. I’m sort of excited to think about what kind of poetry book I’ll write next. I’d like to write a poetry book that would be read as much as my fiction gets read. I want to try to use some of the techniques that you use to write fiction. You know, ways that you get people to literally turn the page, so that the book is tense and compelling.
FV: How has your poetry changed over the years?
Kay: When I was a kid, I wrote these polemical poems about things that I disagreed with or things that I felt very angry about; you know, poverty and apartheid and war and greed and rich people being rich and poor people being poor. I was a little child who would write these very angry poems about the world. Very early on I had a strong sense of social justice, right and wrong. I think that’s one of the things that children today are missing because we live in a society that doesn’t seem concerned about the state of the world. That, to me, is horrifying. I keep trying to give my son a sense of social consciousness about the world. It’s difficult to do now. I describe my early poems as being those morbid, depressed teenage sort of poems, terrible mushroom-taking kinds of poems. Then they kind of came out of that. I remember sending my poems off when they were very polemical, to places like Spare Rib, and getting letters back saying that they were very good but there wasn’t enough me in them. It was too much issue and not enough me. So then I went to the other end of the extreme and wrote all these poems that were about me and I found that when I did start to write personally, quite personally, that I didn’t like them either. So then, I finally cracked it and found a way that was writing about myself but also not writing myself. When I started to write The Adoption Papers, I felt as if I’d really become a poet. I felt as if all the other stuff beforehand was just the preparation. I felt, yes, that I could write poetry that was informed by my life but was also imaginary. I could use both; I could combine the two, which is still the thing that I find the most interesting to do–to take a bit of the real and a bit of the imaginary, a bit of the familiar and a bit of the strange, and blend those things together in some sort of way.
FV: Yes, I love that combination in your work.
Kay: Once I’d started to do that with myself, I found I could create these other personas, and I moved on to dramatic monologues, which are represented in the second half of The Adoption Papers and then in Other Lovers. But now I’ve moved away from writing dramatic monologues in poetry. I find them tedious in a way, and I find them too old-fashioned. They don’t satisfy what I want to say anymore. But it is very unlikely that I’d write that kind of poem ever again. I’m more interested now in trying to find a way of returning to lyric poetry-but with a lot of drama. So that’s probably what I’d try to do next–find a way of being intimate and lyrical and personal but also dramatic, without having to create the voices of characters.
FV: Is it that the dramatic monologue boxes you into to the personal too intensely and prevents your developing a wider social context?
Kay: I think that’s what it is. One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about writing fiction is that I feel I’m driving out on a much wider road. There is also a difference in observations, even perceptions, that you can bring into a piece if fiction but that you can’t with poems. There’s much more about the world that you can tell with fiction. You can tell your readers what state the streets are in, whether there’s rubbish in the street, what’s the state of the public transport, what a house looks like. You can tell all of that in a different way. The camera lens you use when writing fiction is a wide angle rather than a close up. Poetry tends to be a close up lens-what the bark of a tree looks like close up, what a star smells like close up. That’s the way you write when you use poetry; you use your senses. But with fiction it has to be wider. So I’d like to find a way of getting that wide-angle lens into my poetry, trying to take what I’ve learned from fiction and put it into poetry.
FV: Well, I can hardly wait until the next book of poetry. Just one more question. How do you see the poetry scene now? What are the possibilities, the limitations?
Kay: A couple of years ago was quite an exciting time for poetry. The Poetry Society got everything buzzing. There was a new generation of poets that were out and about and on their own. There was a lot of poetry on the radio and on television. Some people even said poetry was the new rock and roll. Then some people said poetry was the new stand up comedy. I think that’s quite funny, all these ideas of what’s new. But I think poetry is regressing slightly at the moment. It’s not quite as exciting a time. Poetry is less in book shops. It is receiving fewer reviews in the newspapers. There are still as many readings going on in stores and festivals, though; there will always be a grass roots hard core poetry scene where the poetry lovers keep poetry going. What poetry really needs to do is break out of being a thing that just poets read and make it something that all people read. People who read fiction are not necessarily fiction writers, but the people who read poetry books are mostly poets. What we need to find is as many readers as fiction has and find as many people that are interested in fiction as in poetry. Until that happens, poetry will always be a very poor second cousin of the nobility, living in basement of the house and not even able to see any light out of the windows.
Jackie Kay was interviewed by Laura Severin, who teaches modern poetry at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. She is the author of Stevie Smith’s Resistant Antics (University of Wisconsin Press, 1997).